In recent months we have seen the departure of two East European presidents. One was elected in broadly free and fair elections, one rigged his and every other election, as evidence as long as your arm demonstrates (if you want the links, just ask).
When one provoked protests against his rule world leaders lined up to condemn him and side with the protestors. When the other provoked similar protests the foreign ambassadors resident in his country, as if with one voice, denounced people for protesting against the legitimate government.
Viktor Yanukovych was the one who won the free election, Mikheil Saakashvili the one who rigged his election. Yet the ambassadors condemned the protestors in Saakashvili’s Georgia, and sided with them in Yanukovych’s Ukraine. This is just one of many examples of the double standards applied to the treatment of these two presidents by those claiming to be motivated by democratic and humanitarian values – an action which damages those same values, and diminishes the protection they should afford people living in Ukraine, Georgia and everywhere else.
People will always have different ways of looking at the same thing – my terrorist is your freedom fighter, my infrastructure builder your murderer. But when you look at two different things and compare them, you need to apply some sort of consistent logic or no comparison is possible. You can’t buy a fish and complain it is not a dog, and then exterminate all the dogs because they are not fish.
There is no consistency in the way Yanukovych and Saakashvili have been portrayed and treated by the media and global politicians, and no explanation has been given for this discrepancy. If Yanukovych is guilty of unacceptable crimes so is Saakashvili, If Saakashvili can be propped up until the end of his term, regardless of his crimes, so should Yanukovych be. But with US power declining in the face of competition from China and other emerging nations, it can convince itself it still rules the world if it can twist perception to fit the reality it wants, while that reality is increasingly unsatisfactory from a US perspective.
The Bad Guy
Yanukovych is being subjected to the usual treatment. One story now going the rounds is that as he and his entourage were fleeing the presidential residence at Mezhyhirya, outside Kiev, on the night of February 21-22, they dumped hundreds of documents into the reservoir in an “amateurish” attempt to conceal incriminating information they are purported to contain. This is alleged to be a last ditch attempt to conceal the crimes of his regime.
However less attention is paid to the even more amateurish reports issued following the unexplained death of Saakashvili’s first Prime Minister, Zurab Zhania, which initially claimed that he had died of carbon monoxide poisoning from a motorcycle idling outside his window and then that a faulty Iranian-made gas heater was responsible. Western governments accepted these versions, being happy to hear anything against Iran, even when his murderers were identified as two named individuals on the personal payroll of now jailed Interior Minister Vano Merabishvili.
Yanukovich’s regime is also accused of killing 86 people in the streets of Kiev, without any justification being offered for this accusation or this figure. Hardly anyone, especially in the mainstream press, is commenting on the fact that unidentified snipers were killing police and protesters alike, or asking who funded the snipers.Just like they did not comment on the deaths in Tbilisi’s streets caused by Saakashvili’s riot police, or the fact that the policeman those dead people were supposed to have killed during these violently-dispersed protests later turned up alive and gave interviews.
Ukraine and Viktor Yanukovych
Is Yanukovych, now a fugitive from someone else’s justice, guilty as charged or just the latest fall guy of the West? Already cheering US media outlets are saying that “journalists and criminal investigators from the post-Yanukovych government have been working to dry out the papers” [the ones thrown in the reservoir], and the first 500 of these have now been photographed and placed on a special website Yanukovychleaks.org for all to see.
There is no evidence to show how genuine these documents are or an explanation of the motivation of sharing them so quickly without first proving their authenticity. There are now a large number of reports on the crimes of Saakashvili regime in Georgia, and a great many were made while that regime was in power. If you look really hard you might find one or two of them, but every page has not been photographed and put on a dedicated website.
Nor have we seen copies of the original documents presented by exiled former Defence Minister Irakli Okruashvili, amongst others, which he says demonstrate Saakashvili’s guilt over the 2008 Georgia-Russia war, or the death list issued to state special forces containing the names of people who either were, had been or became political prisoners, who have since been shown it.
According to “Kyiv Post” deputy chief editor Katya Gorchinskaya, who is among those working on the documents, Yanukovych emerges from these “as an ugly man who ran both his home and his nation like a medieval fiefdom.” This accusation chimes in with the recent release of photos of the lavish residences of Ukrainian government members, including Yanukovych, as if these state properties have only recently been discovered.
Yet it is rarely reported that Saakashvili built the opulent Presidential Palace in Tbilisi, with unknown funds which were never accounted for, which is deemed surplus to requirements by the current president. Nor is it reported that even according to the official accounts he spent more on the Christmas and New Year celebrations each year than on social programs for the massed ranks of Georgia’s poor.
Drowning the truth is preferred to burning it
The fact is that a democratically-elected government, which Ukrainians chose over the Orange Revolution government and supported by the West, has been toppled with outside planning and financial support. Maybe Yanukovych’s conduct in office violated ethical principles and gave justification for his removal on behalf of the people. Why have the protests been continually misrepresented as being related to his refusal to sign the EU Association Agreement? Would not the sort of crimes he is now being accused of be a better reason for removing him – if they existed?
An implicit part of the accusation against Yanukovych is that he has unsavory friends, whoever they may be. If you don’t agree with someone, they must be connected to recognized rogues, so the theory has it. The West’s friends in Ukraine include the radically xenophobic and anti-Semitic gangs, mostly from the west of the country, whose visible hate crimes are now being justified by governments which outlaw such conduct in their homelands.
These people are the “movers and shakers” in the new self-appointed Ukrainian government and increasingly its public face. These head bashers will allegedly lead the country to a bright future, with the blessing of the West and international financial organizations. If Yanukovych supporters were guilty of the same crimes, we would certainly be hearing about it now.
The official rhetoric in the West, in so many words:
The Western position on Ukraine has been expressed by a foreign lecturer, PhD in Russia studies, who has written extensively in Georgia and Azerbaijan (name and job title withheld for sake of his job security). He says:
“I hope you know the difference in political science and IR between legality and legitimacy. Recent events in Ukraine mean that Yanukovich ceased to be the legitimate president of Ukraine, for three main reasons. First, he lost the confidence of the majority of the population. Second, he bears the responsibility for the bloody crackdown that took place in late February– the use of force against a peaceful popular demonstration is an infringement of the democratic mandate he received in 2010. Third, Yanukovich left Kiev – as a matter of fact he left the country – not for health reasons but for political reasons. Being abroad, he can no longer perform his duties as president of Ukraine and in accordance to Ukraine’s constitution. Fourth, there are the documents found in Miedzygorze (his personal home paid for with corrupt money). He has many other homes in the country. All the oligarchs who have left their homeland have confirmed that he, his son and many other people of his entourage stole billions of dollars from the state budget and through shady contracts. These documents clearly show the rogue nature of the previous Ukrainian regime.”
Let us examine this proposition in detail:
- If “losing the confidence of the majority of the population” made a government illegitimate most Western governments would only last a few weeks, and many countries would never have a government at all. Even if governments are drawn from parties which have collectively gained over 50% of the vote at the last election, which is very often not the case, when you add in those who didn’t vote even these do not have the expressed confidence of the majority of the population when they are elected, and if they do they generally lose that support soon afterwards, if we believe opinion polls and local election results.
- If a “bloody crackdown on protestors” is an “infringement of the democratic mandate” we may question why, for example, the US government was legitimate after the Kent State Shootings of 1970, the UK government was legitimate after Bloody Sunday in Northern Ireland, the French government was legitimate after the Paris riots of 1968, etcetera. However it does explain why when Saakashvili conducted several such crackdowns he was called a “great European”.
- If “being abroad” (if he is) means that Yanukovych “cannot perform his duties” we may ask why Western leaders frequently go on foreign trips to gain support when they are under pressure at home – de Gaulle fled France in 1968, Nixon toured China to avoid Watergate, prewar British Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin used to take three months off at a time.
We may also ask why Saakashvili was not deposed when he spent three months in the USA unannounced, and his political party, when asked how Georgia benefitted from this, responded by saying that the local elections were coming up and people would have more confidence they would not be rigged if Saakashvili were out of the country.
- If stealing “millions of dollars from the state budget and through shady contracts” makes a government illegitimate – where do we start? Is there a Western country in which members of one government or another have not stolen funds or personally benefitted from contracts, whilst that government remains in power even if the culprits are jailed? In Saakashvili’s Georgia ministers routinely creamed off 25% of each contract, a practice so blatant that when a minister was dismissed he was asked publicly to return the money he had stolen whilst in power. The gross mismatches between the weapons the Defence Ministry paid for and what the Georgian Army got, and the homes that were designed for refugees and those actually built, were two visible consequences of this practice.
With the situation in Ukraine heating up Yanukovych is unlikely to be pensioned off with a lucrative lecture tour like Saakashvili. He may indeed have ruled in an illegitimate way, but if that is so the Western objections to him would correspond with what the protestors are saying. Instead completely different arguments, which just don’t stand up, are being advanced for treating him differently from Mikheil Saakashvili, friend of the West.
Politicians may not like to hear this, but truth and justice do exist, and do affect everyday life, you just can’t avoid them.
Seth Ferris, investigative journalist and political scientist, expert on Middle Eastern affairs, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.